Summertime, and the livin’s (not) easy

This Matteo is a different kettle of fish and political observers think that Malta is in for a long hot summer, spending days of bickering with Italy about where illegal migrants floating in skimpy boats would be allowed to land

Lega leader Matteo Salvini
Lega leader Matteo Salvini

The new Italian government sworn on June 1 was described by The New York Times as a populist one that articulates vision, but few specifics. I have no doubt, however, that it is bound to give the Mediterranean a specifically new kind of summer.

Matteo Salvini, the Federal Secretary of Lega (Nord) – actually the leader of the party in Italian political terms – is now the new Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and Minister of the Interior.

On 21 December 2017, Salvini presented the new electoral logo for the Lega Nord for the 2018 general election: for the first time since its foundation the party ran in all the constituencies of the country, using a logo without the word ‘Nord’. ‘La Lega’ was a resounding success, becoming the third largest party in Italy with 17.4% of the vote.

The party ran on an anti-immigrant ticket, amongst other things. On being appointed minister of the interior, he immediately stated that his main aim was to drastically reduce the number of illegal immigrants to Italy. That is why Malta will probably have a new kind of summer this year.

Following some sort of tacit agreement with former Italian PM Matteo Renzi – another Matteo – and Maltese PM Joseph Muscat, the number of illegal immigrants landing in Malta in the last four summers had dwindled to practically nil.

This Matteo is a different kettle of fish and political observers think that Malta is in for a long hot summer, spending days of bickering with Italy about where illegal migrants floating in skimpy boats would be allowed to land.

It seems that Salvini’s knowledge of Mediterranean geography is no way better than that of Roberto Maroni – another Lega Nord politician who was minister of the interior during the first and second Silvio Berlusconi cabinets – who apparently did not realise that there are islands within Italian territory that are nearer to Northern Africa than Malta. Last Friday Salvini repeated the geographical untruth that Malta is nearer to North Africa than Italy – as if Lampedusa, Linosa and Pantelleria are not part of Italy’s sovereign territory.

It is very significant that Salvini’s first foray outside Rome after his appointment was in Sicily – in Catania where he went to bolster his party’s chances in the impending the elections for the Local Council (Comune) of the Sicilian city. Left-wingers whistled and called him fascist, but he seemed unperturbed.

Not so when he went to Pozzallo where he was greeted by many and where he proclaimed that Sicily will no longer serve as the refugee camp of Europe. Pozzallo is the nearest Italian port to Malta and it is where many illegal migrants picked up from the Mediterranean are landed; the other port being Lampedusa.

Salvini also accused Tunisia of knowingly sending migrants with convictions across the Mediterranean – provoking the North African country to issue a strongly-worded rebuke. Tunisia even summoned the Italian ambassador to register its profound astonishment about the comments made by Salvini.

Interviewed on BBC, an Italian Opposition MP said that the previous government had relied for a long time on EU solidarity and when it started to do its own thing – including financing a dubious organisation that controlled migrants leaving Libya – it was too late. In short the EU failed in its obligations of solidarity with Italy on the immigration issue and the people responded by strengthening the vote of a right-wing party that campaigned on an anti-immigrant and an anti-EU ticket.

In fact, anti-immigrant parties are going from strength to strength in most EU states, while mainstream politicians talk of European values.

But what does this term mean? Austria had no qualms sending armed personnel at its border with Italy to ensure that no undocumented migrants cross the frontier into the country. Viktor Orbán has built fences along the Hungarian border. And the farce continues.

Suffice to say that the Schengen agreement is supposed to lead to persons who are in an EU state that is a Schengen member, to be able to cross from one country to another without showing documents. The only unwritten exception seems to be undocumented immigrants who need to show documents that they do not have!

European values

Writing in The Guardian recently, Daniel Trilling insists that one of the myths about the refugee crisis is that it is a threat to European values.

“European values” have been invoked both in support of refugees and migrants and to attack them. Demagogues such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have projected themselves as defenders of a Christian European civilisation, enacting anti-migrant policies to protect Europe from being overrun by Muslim hordes.

On the other hand, humanitarians have frequently appealed to a vision of Europe like the one set out by José Manuel Barroso in 2012, when the EU was awarded the Nobel peace prize: “As a community of nations that has overcome war and fought totalitarianism,” Barroso said in his acceptance speech, “we will always stand by those who are in pursuit of peace and human dignity.”

Trilling argues that both visions are wrong.

The first tries to erase the fact that Europe is a diverse continent, in which Christian, Muslim, Jewish and secular traditions have been present for centuries.

The second vision presents Europe as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world – an aspiration that will remain unfulfilled if we ignore the fact that while the nations of Europe have overcome war and fought totalitarianism, many of these same nations became rich and powerful by conquering and administering huge empires, which were partially justified by the idea of European racial supremacy.

In the debate about refugees and immigration, people’s struggles are ignored or dismissed depending on their background, with little discussion of how Europe might have contributed to the situation of the countries the migrants leave behind – either historically, or through the military and economic policies of current governments.

And when local conflicts involving newly arrived refugees break out in European countries, many commentators jump seamlessly from an incident that needs a considered response, to a declaration of an existential threat to Europe from its Muslim minority.

“At its extreme end, this is genocidal logic, of a kind Europe has known in its past,” writes Trilling, who insists that a more honest conversation about the crisis would involve a reckoning with Europe’s own past.

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